Award-winning playwright Mercelo Dos Santos’s new comedy play Backstairs Billy has opened at The Duke of York Theatre, led by Penelope Wilton as the Queen Mother and Luke Evans as her loyal servant, with Emily Barber in a supporting role. Set in 1979, the strikes are bringing the nation to its knees, but it’s business as usual for the Queen Mother in Clarence House, with free-flowing champagne and partying, before two world start to collide with dizzying consequences. We sat down with Emily ahead of the show’s debut to hear all about it.
Interview: Emily Barber
Hi Emily, thanks for joining us today. How’s life going at the moment?
Life is busy! But enjoyably so. We are in our fifth and final week in the rehearsal room.
You’re about to star onstage alongside Luke Evans and Penelope Wilton in Marcelo Dos Santos’s new comedy play Backstairs Billy – how are you feeling?
Excited! I feel very privileged to be at the birth of a new comedy in the West End. It is a glorious insight into Clarence House and the unique relationship between Billy and the Queen Mother. We all think it is hilarious. We just hope the audience do, too!
How would you describe the play in three words?
Really, rather naughty.
What’s your character like?
I actually play two people. In the first act, I play Annabel Maud, a sitcom actress who stars in one of her majesty’s favourite TV shows. In the second act, I play Lady Astlebury/Miffie who is very much an upper-class socialite of the time. They both interact with Clarence House and the Queen Mother very differently, so they are a joy to play with and differentiate between.
How are you getting into character/preparing for the role?
Whether it is worthy research, but I have been watching a lot of ’70s sitcoms – Are You Being Served? and The Good Life – to suss out who I think my character Annabel is loosely based on.
Any standout moments from rehearsals so far?
Definitely the arrival of the integral last two cast members; the corgis!
Any funny stories?
The play is farcical at points, so pretty much every day we get the giggles. I don’t want to give too much plot away, but there’s a section where we all do different accents to impress the Queen Mother. I don’t quite know how we will keep a straight face. Also, live animals: the Corgi’s are providing quite a few anecdotes already…
What is the cast dynamic? Who was your fave person to work with?
Michael Grandage, our director, has assembled a very talented cast. But, more importantly, a lovely group of people. Having theatre royalty Dame Penelope in the room playing the Queen Mother, you can’t help but be a little in awe! I actually played Luke Evan’s fiancée in the Netflix series The Alienist so I’ve loved reconnecting with him now in a completely different medium. That was New York in the 1890’s, and now we are in 1979 London!
You have also recently appeared in Netflix’s new mystery series, Bodies. How would you describe the show?
Bodies is a new crime thriller where four detectives in four different time periods of London find themselves investigating the same murder. It is part murder mystery, part period drama, part detective story and part dystopia – which makes it quite hard to define! But it is incredibly clever and ambitious, based on the DC comic and mind-bending graphic novel by Si Spencer.
You play Kathleen – can you describe her?
Kathleen is a young woman who works as a secretary in Whitechapel police station in 1941. She has a close and somewhat flirtatious relationship with Detective Whiteman (played by Jacob Fortune Lloyd), but there’s a fair amount going on underneath for her…
What was it like filming the series?
The 1940’s is such a fabulous era for style, and the team wanted this period of the story to be very Detective Noir. Despite being in the middle of the Blitz, there was a vintage glamour to it; I had these incredibly long red nails which were hard to navigate around using a typewriter! I also was lucky enough to work with Jacob Fortune-Lloyd who coincidentally was already a friend of mine, so it was actually lovely to get to hang out on set with him!
We were filming in this incredible old warehouse in Bradford, so my main memories were being absolutely freezing and hiding a hot water bottle under my desk between takes!
What has been your favourite project to date?
So hard to choose! I have to say doing The Importance Of Being Earnest in the West End as one of my first jobs was pretty amazing. It is a masterpiece of a play and requires a very specific skillset from an actor in terms of verbal dexterity and comic timing. Every day getting to perform Wilde’s words was pure joy.
Any roles in the pipeline that you’re excited about? (If you’re allowed to tell us!)
I have a couple of potential projects for next year, but I shall keep quiet for now!
Which character that you have played in the past do you relate to the most in your own life?
Well, I’m playing an actress at the moment who is from humble beginnings, but her accent changes depending on who she is around. She is what we have been calling ‘actressy’ posh, which very much resonates with me.
Who has been your favourite actor to work with in the past?
Gosh, so many have been amazing, but I did one of my first jobs with David Suchet and I learned so much from him. He became my mentor and actually gave me Shakespeare lessons in his dressing room between matinee and evening shows as I was about to take on my first Shakespeare role at The Globe. He was so generous, and I still remember everything he taught me.
Which co-star did you learn the most from?
Papa Suchet aka David Suchet.
What’s your dream role?
Too many! My dream is to keep playing a range of genres and character roles. But I feel optimistic that gender representation on stage is changing (with the ERA 5050 movement), which is opening up new possibilities. I’d love to play Iago!
What’s a genre you’d like to do more of?
I’m thrilled to be back doing a comedy. I would love to do more of this on screen, too.
Do you get to spend much time at home?
The actor’s life means sometimes I spend so much time at home pottering around, and then suddenly I’m living out a suitcase for months. Doing the play in town means I can be at home in London which is lovely. But I secretly hope my next job takes me somewhere exotic!
Do you live in the town or the country? Which do you prefer?
I’ve lived in London for 10 years now and I can’t imagine being anywhere else. I love this city. My family are in Peterborough, Cambridgeshire and every few weeks I do feel the urge to escape home. I definitely can think clearer when out in the countryside – too many fun distractions in the city!
What’s your interior design style?
I’d say my style is colourful and cosy, with an eclectic mix of antique and vintage pieces. I like homes that are unique and reflect the personality of the person living there. I’ve always loved the Bloomsbury Group style and was really inspired after visiting Charleston to start being bolder and more creative inside the home. I love being crafty, so have painted some lampshades in my house and photo frames. I haven’t been brave enough to paint a mural on a wall yet though…!
How do you find balance in your personal and work lives?
It’s hard! This job is all or nothing so much of the time. But I think I’ve gotten better over the years at focussing and working hard when the job comes, but making sure I also nurture my relationships and enjoy life when it is quiet. Some actors can really punish themselves when out of work, but I think one of the joys of freelance life is getting to spend so much time with friends and family. And properly getting to invest time into hobbies!
What did you want to be when you were growing up?
A ballerina. I realised quite quickly I was technically awful at it, but could act my way through it. Which makes a lot of sense now!
If you could give advice to your 15-year-old self, what would it be?
Oh, I wish I could give so much advice to that 15 year old girl! But mainly I’d love to reassure her that it is all going to work out alright, keep going on your path and try not to worry so much about what people think. Also don’t be so afraid of adults, they don’t know everything. Trust me!
How can we all live a little bit better?
Meet up or pick up the phone and properly talk to loved ones. The world seems to be less and less about human interaction. In lockdown, I started volunteering for a charity and had weekly Zoom chats with some of the elderly community who were alone or isolated, and it brought so much to my life. Connection is everything.
Anything fun in the pipeline – professionally or personally?
I’m just looking forward to being in the West End over the festive period and having a post-show tipple with the cast. We’re all keen to try the Queen Mother’s favourite cocktail – a Gin Dubonnet!
I’m currently watching… GBBO & Strictly. I love this time of year.
What I’m reading… Harriet Walter’s autobiography, Other People’s Shoes.
The last thing I watched (and loved) was… Past Lives
What I’m most looking forward to seeing… Andrew Scott in Vanya at the Duke of York, directed by my fab friend Sam Yates.
Favourite film of all time… It’s A Wonderful Life
Favourite song of all time… Impossible to pick!
Band/singer I always have on repeat… Self Esteem
My ultimate cultural recommendation… Go see a classic film screening at The Cinema Museum. It is such a special building tucked away down a side street in Kennington. It is like stepping into bygone era; a treasure trove of film equipment and memorabilia.
Cultural guilty pleasure… I have a terrible sweet tooth, so my favourite thing to do is treat myself to afternoon tea in London. It is cultural and a pleasure, but I refuse to feel guilty about it!
What’s next for me is… Opening night of the play! Eek.
Emily Barber stars in Backstairs Billy, running at The Duke of York Theatre until 27 January 2024. Get your tickets at thedukeofyorks.com